“Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God….Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you (John 12:35)”. Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue 9. 13.
In these dark times, St. Benedict encourages us not to close our eyes to the clouds and shadows but to look deeper. He himself models the way of seeing the prophet Samuel described to Jesse, David’s father, in today’s second Mass reading: “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). St. Benedict looks at impoverished guests and sees Christ. He looks at the community gathered at table and instructs the server to wash the brethren’s feet, seeing there the shadow of Christ washing the disciples feet and then telling them to do the same. He looks at wayward brothers and sees as Christ his own exemplar saying to the Pharisees, “it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick” (Matt 9:12). In fact, wherever he looks. St. Benedict sees the reality around him with wisdom and compassion because he always sees Christ present, acting in love.
Faith is a way of opening our eyes to the light that comes from God and shines steadily though the reality around us and within us. It it not a book lamp. Many of us imagine that life comes with an owner’s manual that explains not only the how-to’s but also the why’s. In times of suffering we expect to be able to turn to the right page so that we will know exactly why all this is happening and exactly what we should do to fix it. Some of you may remember the poignant line in Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus says to his Father out of the agony of Gethsemane, “You’re very good on what and when, but not so hot on why!” (This is the version supplied by my memory, not necessarily exactly by the show’s script!). Faith doesn’t allow us to turn readily to the answer key. It does enable us to see the light that signals God’s presence even in the dark. That is the light to which Benedict exhorts us to open the eyes not of the body but of the heart.
The web is full of wise medical counsel about containing the spread of the coronavirus. In one place after another throughout the world and throughout our own country, that counsel is becoming law: shelter in place, stay home and lock your doors, avoid the workplace, stay out of the supermarket. St. Benedict, had he lived in our time and place, would likely not have argued, Even in his own difficult times, towns (and monasteries) were forced to close themselves in behind barricades erected built to turn away armed invaders. That is what most of us are doing now.
But St. Benedict looked at life from a deeper perspective. He knew the psalms that image death as darkness, wordlessness, and utter isolation. He recognized in them descriptions not of physical death as retranslated by the reality of the Resurrection. He saw them rather as self-chosen prisons of the human spirit, dying long before death arrives. He urges on us a different choice: “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God” in the belief and trust that will allow us to run free of heart, able to outrun that creeping death of the heart.
We see around us, and perhaps we see ourselves as people who have made this choice. We may stay home, but we pray, keeping God’s life-giving word circulating in the relational network that is humanity in Christ; or we reach out to others in safe ways with support, understanding, encouragement; or we help in ways we might never have thought of in other times. And some obey the call to leave the safe zones and go out as workers in essential places, as medical staff, as priests and other ministers, even as the mounting death toll includes many of them. Those of us who do not share that call can still take them, too, into the light of God’s love with our prayer.
The blind man Jesus healed in today’s Mass gospel saw the light for the first time that day (John 9:1-41). May we, by God’s mercy, see it always, or, if we cannot, believe that it is always there.